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5 Essential Tools for the Beginning Glass Mosaic Maker

Wheeled Mosaic Nippers are Essential for Cutting Glass into Bits
Wheeled Mosaic Nippers are Essential for Cutting Glass into Bits

1.  Wheeled Mosaic Nippers

These are the scissors of the mosaic world.  Tile nippers will crush glass, but wheeled mosaic nippers allow you to shape the glass.  The black handled ones are Leponitts, considered the top of the line in nippers.  The red handled ones are sometimes available at craft stores.  I use both, because they each have their own strengths.

2.  Dental Tools

Invaluable for cleaning the last bits of grout and glue from your mosaic.  I like lots of levels in my mosaics, and this means some pieces get buried and I need to dig them out after grouting.  Widget Supply Company has a nice selection(and I love the name!).  I also use the Fiskars Fingertip Craft Knife for particularly stubborn bits of glue.

3.  Tweezers

Glass is to be respected!  To avoid the sharp edges and also to make precise placement, I use reverse action tweezers to pick up smaller pieces for dipping in glue.  EKSuccess’ Tweezer Bee is my favorite.  The tips are very pointy for precision, they are coated in non-stick finish which helps shed the glue, and a nice squishy padded handle.

4.  Microfiber Cloths

When cleaning off grout, I skip the sponge idea, and use microfiber cloths.  They have just enough tooth to remove grout haze, and can be used over and over.

5.  Weldbond Glue

Non-toxic, washable, pvc white glue which dries clear, and which with some water and prodding, allows you take out pieces after they’ve already dried.  Very helpful when you realize something needs to be adjusted!  Read more about it:  A mosaic artist’s friend.



Hammer and Hardie here I come! My Log came.

Margaret Almon and custom log by Ted Frumkin
Margaret Almon and custom log by Ted Frumkin. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

I had the mosaic cutting tool set of hammer and hardie for longer than I want to admit, waiting until I found a log to use as a base.  Finally, I found Ted Frumkin‘s woodworking studio in Western PA, and he was able to take a piece of Catalpa just the right size and clean it up for me and ship it across the state, just in time for a monster snow storm!

Stratoz came charging up the stairs with a big box, and it was my log!  We didn’t even get mail the day before that, so this was very exciting.  He heaved the log up onto my drawing table, and now we need to drill a hole and sink the hardie.  Then I will be set to use the traditional technique for cutting smalti, still favored in Italy.

I learned to use this tool at a mosaic workshop at Snow Farm: The New England Craft Program.  You balance the piece of glass smalti on the finely honed edge of the hardie and tap it with the hammer and it shears into pieces.  Smalti can be a challenge to nip with wheeled mosaic nippers, so I’m looking forward to getting to know my new tool!

View from the Porch, Big Snow of 2010
View from the Porch, Big Snow of 2010, Lansdale, PA
Catalpa Log in Margaret Almon's Studio
Catalpa Log in Margaret Almon’s Studio
Detail of Margaret Almon's new Catalpa Log
Detail of Margaret Almon’s new Catalpa Log

10 Ways to a More Ergonomic Mosaic Studio: The Art of Working with Pain

1.  Set a timer, preferably in another room.  I set the timer for 20 minutes, 10 if it’s something very intricate, and walking down the hallway to turn it off helps me be more mindful of my body.   A  5 minute break every hour doesn’t do it for me.  Yes, at first frequent breaks interrupted my flow, but now they are thoroughly part of it.

2.  Take a shoulder break by putting a 2 soft balls or empty 16oz water bottles, or small rolled up towels under my arms(anywhere from the pit to nearer the elbow) for a few minutes.  This position allows my shoulders to rest while different muscles are engaged, and I can keep mosaicing. The first time I read about this in Franklin’s Relax your Neck, Liberate Your Shoulders, I couldn’t imagine it helping, but it felt great.  I look funny, but, oh well.

3.  Wear a padded glove on your nipping hand.  I wear a Sammons Preston Rolyan anti-vibration glove

4.  Work on several different projects to vary the types of tasks I am doing.  Invariably, too much of one thing, whether it be nipping, gluing or grouting, increases my pain levels.

5.  Remember to breathe.  When I’m focusing intensely, I tend to hold my breath, and tense my muscles.

6.  Take a day off from the studio.  Yes, I love making mosaics.  Yes, I have orders to fill.  But to sustain my craftsmanship in the long term, I need to give my body a chance to decompress.

7.  Stand up to nip and glue.  This may not work for everyone, that’s the nature of ergonomics, not one size fits all.  But for me, having a tall drafting table and standing as I work allows me to get better leverage with nipping, using the big muscles in my arms and shoulders rather than just my hands.

8.  Lift up your work to avoid crafters’ hunch.  I elevate my work in progress on a box on top of my drafting table.  Sometimes I sit down to work, if standing is getting uncomfortable, and use a drawing table with an adjustable top, and elevate the surface to an angle just enough to get a better view without the tesserae sliding off.  If you glue the bottom row first, that can catch any errant pieces.

9.  Invest in a hammer & hardie.  This traditional mosaic cutting tool is an alternative to wheeled mosaic nippers, and you can cut chunks of smalti with the tap of the hammer.  The more types of tools, the options you have.

10.  Consult a physical or occupational therapist who can guide you with appropriate exercises and adaptations.  I had an overzealous day with scissors several years ago when I was making collages, and woke up unable to extend my pointer finger.  A hand therapist was instrumental in helping me protect my hands.


Related Posts

Margaret Goldie: Teacher of the Alexander Technique

Ted Hallman: The Alexander Technique in the Art Studio

An Artist’s Experience with the Alexander Technique:  Interview with Robert Rickover


Weldbond: A Mosaic Artist’s Friend

Working with Weldbond.
Working with Weldbond. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

Adhesive is an integral aspect of mosaic art.  The first mosaics I made were stepping stones, affixing pebbles to concrete pavers with thin-set cement mortar.  Thinset is finicky, like its cousin grout.  Once the process of becoming cement begins, you’re on the clock.  Adding more thinset to a soupy mixture or adding more water or admix to a bread-dough type consistency weakens the adhesive qualities.  Thinset also has a memory, and once you stick a pebble down, the thinset won’t be happy if you move it.  I learned to mix small batches in deli containers to reduce waste.

Then I took a class, and was introduced to Weldbond:  Universal Space Age Adhesive.  How could anyone resist that name?  And for me, the fact it was from Canada was all the better, since I grew up in Alberta.  Weldbond is not for stepping stones; it is water-soluble.  But what a relief from thinset. Mosaic artists can have long earnest debates about adhesives(our mosaic-geekiness showing through), and tend to be loyal to different kinds.  I am a Weldbond Woman.  If I was primarily a garden artist, sign artist or maker of public art, I can see how I would be swayed by thinset, but I make mosaics for the home, mostly inside.

Weldbond is a non-toxic white pvc glue.  It can bond just about anything and works well with glass because it dries clear.   I like working with translucent and transparent glass, to let light in, and increase the glowing intensity of color, so I don’t want a glue interfering.  It does require patience, as it can take a couple weeks to completly turn clear if you are applying glass on glass, and if you grout too soon, the air can’t get in to complete the process. But this is a fine trade-off for not having to open the window to air out fumes as with silicone adhesive.  It sets up within the day, but I always wait at least 24 hours before grouting.  The longer is sets, the stronger the bond gets.

I gave up on the small bottles, which tend to clog, and have ordered it online by the gallon from ACE(it’s mostly carried by independent hardware stores and online mosaic supply shops).  I pour a small amount onto a plastic deli lid and either dip tesserae in using tweezers, my fingers, or spread the glue onto the substrate with a putty knife.  It takes practice to know how much glue to apply.  You want enough to coat but not so much that it oozes up between pieces, clogging up the groutlines.

If I really am troubled by a particular piece already glued down and set, I brush a little water around the piece, let it sit 5-10 minutes and lever it up with an awl or other sharp pointy instrument.  Sometimes a bit of the substrates comes up too, but it’s manageable.  Wear eye protection if you perform this operation, because glass can splinter when you apply force and it’s not fully loosened.  I make it a practice to leave individual pieces alone, until there are enough of them glued down to see if anything is glaring, or interrupting the flow, and then, I still remind myself that it’s the total effect that matters, and if I get in a mood and pull up more than I glue, it’s still never going to be perfect.

A final bonus with Weldbond–if you leave a bit out on the lid, and it dries clear, you can pull the clear vinyl-like disc off in a most satisfying manner.



5 Essential Tools for the Beginning Mosaic Maker